When the Blue Jackets last faced the Arizona Coyotes, it was January 3, 2015 - - the first game of the new year -- with Columbus emerging from a truly wondrous December that saw them post a 10 - 1 - 1 record and return to playoff relevance. The Coyotes, however, were unimpressed, and proceeding to lay a 6 - 3 shellacking on the Blue Jackets, serving notice that it was no longer the magic month of December. Columbus proceeded to post a 5-8-0 record in January, once again putting their playoff chances on life support.
Against this backdrop, Columbus was seeking to start February off on a better note. They failed . . . miserably. Let's do the post-mortem and see what happened.
Period One: Milk Carton Time
The game started at the usual appointed hour of 7:00 PM EST, but the Blue Jackets apparently did not get the memo. After a decent first shift that generated the first shot of the game, the Blue Jackets went into hibernation, permitting the Coyotes to pretty much have their way with the puck in the offensive zone. On the rare occasions when the puck fell on a Columbus stick, it either stayed there too long -- resulting in a turnover -- or left too quickly, with no apparent target in mind -- also resulting in a turnover. It is a testament to the absurdity of the NHL "Giveaway" statistic that the officials only charged the Blue Jackets with seven turnovers for the game. I swear I identified that many by the second media break.
The ragged play was contributed to in part by some rather unique line configurations, including the ongoing saga of the waiver-bound defensemen, who are apparently alternating at forward in the absence of Matt Calvert. Tonight it was Kevin Connauton on the forward lines, with Jordan Leopold returning to the blue line -- for the most part. As has been customary of late, the configurations changed with some frequency throughout the game. More on this later, but there was certainly a lack of comfort with the on-ice pairings, resulting in missed passes, more than the usual number of offsides calls, and obvious confusion as to who was going to be where and when.
Given this state of chaos, it should come as no surprise that Arizona took the lead at the 8:00 minute mark. The play began below the line, came out in front to B.J. Crombeen who's shot from the left caromed off Anton Forsberg (who drew the starting assignment in goal) and over to the right post, where it appeared to again bounce around before Lucas Lessio, who tucked it in the back of the net for a 1 - 0 lead. Brendan Shinnimin picked up the second assist -- his first helper of the season.
After another minute of futility, Brandon Dubinsky selected Kyle Chipchura as his dance partner for a pugilistic wake-up call. Why a bunch of professional athletes require one of their number to get in a fight to wake up is beyond my comprehension, but it appeared to have some catalytic effect. For the final several minutes of the period, the Blue Jackets showed more life, more skating, and actually created some shots. The final shot margin for the period was 14 - 10 Arizona, but the optics of the period were not that close.
The improved offensive pressure had some impact, as it provoked a cross-checking penalty by Connor Murphy with just 36 seconds left in the period. While Columbus was unable to convert before time expired, they had the chance to go to the locker room, shake off the cobwebs, and start the second fresh, with a man advantage. Just what the doctor ordered.
Period Two: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
The Blue Jackets came out just as the assembled crowd hoped -- with a spring in their step and malice in their hearts. They took possession of the puck, set up the power play, created traffic in front of Mike Smith, and got the puck to James Wisniewski at the point. Wiz buried a laser through traffic, and suddenly the game was tied with just 40 seconds gone in the period. Jack Johnson and Scott Hartnell garnered the assists, and it looked like Columbus had its footing back.
Unfortunately, Wiz giveth . . . and Wiz taketh away. In a play that we seem to have seen dozens of times in this and other seasons, Wisniewski made an ill-advised pinch from the right point, had the puck turn over, and the race the other way commence. This usually results in an odd-man rush, but Wiz was able to corral Lauri Korpikoski in a move that gave the referee the choice between holding, interference, hooking or tripping. Interference was the choice, and Arizona was on the power play just 1:16 after the Blue Jackets had knotted it up. It took just 36 more seconds for Oliver Edman-Larsson to bury a shot from the right point through a heavy screen by Shane Doan and Forsberg's five hole. Keith Yandle and Antoine Vermette were credited with the assists, and the Coyotes went back on top.
Apparently pleased with the power play scenario, Arizona got another opportunity at the 4:16 mark, when Ryan Murray was whistled for a phantom hooking infraction. In real time it appeared that Shinnimin had a firm grasp on Murray's stick, and pulled it forward. The call was made from behind the play, and Murray was clearly frustrated by what he undoubtedly thought was a penalty against Shinnimin. This time, it took just over a minute for Arizona to convert. Keith Yandle let a point shot fly from the middle, and the puck pinball around the crease, eventually ending up on the stick of Doan, who put it home. Korpikoski and Yandle had the helpers, and Arizona had some breathing room.
The last goal appeared to take the wind out of the Blue Jackets' sails, and they could do little in the way of offensive pressure for the rest of the frame. The Coyotes again held the edge in shots, 13 - 9, making 27 shots in all over just two periods. The deficit was in no way due to any transgressions by Forsberg, who made some strong saves and looked generally more comfortable than he has in prior outings for the mother ship.
Still, despite everything, the gap was only two, and the Blue Jackets had more than enough firepower to close the gap. It would take a more complete effort in the third.
Period Three: Effort, But No Results
Columbus came out with speed and intensity in the third, posting the first eight shots of the period, and outshooting Arizona 12 - 2 for the entire stanza. Yet, the only goal of the period was Tobias Rieder's empty netter with 2:11 left in the contest. In between there were some tantalizing opportunities, including one Ryan Johansen shot that got through Smith, and sat tantalizingly in the blue paint, just inches from the goal line. Unfortunately, the Blue Jackets could not get a stick on it, and the opportunity was missed. On another rush, Alexander Wennberg floated a perfect cross-ice pass to Jack Skille, who likely just missed his aiming point, enabling Smith to make the save.
Credit has to be given to Smith and the Coyotes. Few rebounds were permitted, and most of those were directed harmlessly toward the corners. On those offensive rushes that the Blue Jackets did not sabotage themselves by poor passing or timing, the collapsing Arizona defense put their sticks to work and annoyingly poke the puck out of harm's way. In any event, the result was an ugly 4- 1 loss that the club could ill afford.
In his post game remarks, Coach Todd Richards noted the failure of the club to start on time, but otherwise had no explanation or solutions for what he saw on the ice. Yes, there was too much drifting going on, and the legs took ten minutes to get moving. That's hardly the first time this has happened this year, but this one had a different feel. This was ragged throughout, and there seemed to be tangible frustration and lack of chemistry, virtually from the opening drop of the puck.
You have to wonder if the constantly shifting forward line combinations, with no apparent rhyme or reason, are having a psychological impact on the squad. Nick Foligno and Johansen were split up, Corey Tropp was given top six minutes, and the shifting combinations seemed almost random in their utilization. You might think that once the ragged play was evident, some more familiar pairings would have been put in place to enable restoration of order, but that was not forthcoming. The overall impression was a bunch of hockey players putting forth some credible individual efforts, but nothing resembling cohesive team play. These guys are professionals, however, and should be expected to transcend these types of issues.
Again, the numbers on this one were misleading. The Blue Jackets outshot Arizona, beat them in the face-off circle, and prevailed at the team all - situation Corsi numbers. Yet, watching the game it never seemed that close. Columbus out-hit the Coyotes 36 - 16, which is perhaps a better indicator of which team had the better of the real possession battle.
David Savard had another game where he really struggled. He was beaten to the pucks, was physically out-gunned and fired an amazing array of ill-conceived passes to nowhere. Other than his goal, Wisniewski similarly showed some spotty defensive play, in that frustrating "angel/devil" way that only Wisniewski can seem to master. It seems unfathomable that John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen are going to move forward with no margin at forward and a stable of blue liners rotating in. One would think that one of the members of the defensive logjam would be on the trading block -- and sometime soon.
This was a mystifying, disappointing effort for the club, and one that cannot be repeated on Friday when St. Louis comes calling. That could be truly ugly.
On the bright side, the Blue Jackets are done with their season series against the Coyotes. Good thing, too. I'm fresh out of arms to chew off. Stay tuned.